Cook Co. board battles over 2009 budget

CHICAGO The idea is at the center of the debate over Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's budget plan for 2009. On Tuesday, Stroger proposed a budget that holds the line on spending by asking employees to take furlough days. But his opponents claim more cost cutting must be done.

It's déjà vu downtown as a handful of county commissioners cry foul when the county board president cries poor.

"Where did all the money go?" said Forrest Claypool, (D) Cook County Commissioner, North Side.

"There is no free lunch here!" said Tony Peraica.

"Our revenues did not meet our expectations so we have to use some of that sales tax money to overcome that deficit," said Todd Stroger, (D) Cook County Board President.

Pres. Stroger is asking county commissioners to approve borrowing $740 million, which he would use it to pay for pensions, insurance and capital improvements. The pension board has sent a letter to county retirees claiming their pensions may lose value if the board doesn't approve the borrowing.

"If we just get the bond through- this is a one time thing -and we won't have to worry about trying to meet our obligations any more," said Pres. Stroger. <,/p>

The pledge rings hollow for county board members who, just nine months ago, listened as President Stroger promised a vote to increase the county's share of the sales tax would solve the money problems.

"This is the most irresponsible budget plan I could possiblly imagine. He just got $500 million in new tax revenue and you're going to borrow $700 million just to pay the bills?" said Commissioner Claypool.

Stroger's team says sales tax revenue is falling short of expectations and won't fully kick-in until next year.

A look inside Stroger's budget reveals sales tax income has been rising for years and is forecast to increase 52-percent in just the next year.

Independent government watchdogs say borrowing new money is a bad idea.

"They're going to get over $300 million in new money this year. That is what should be first tapped into to meet your obligations before we start adding to the payroll before we add expenses," said Laurence Msall, Civic Federation.

Msall compares the Stroger borrowing plan to a single person borrowing money from the bank to buy groceries.

Without the bond issue, Stroger says he'll have to impose lay-offs and service cuts.

One Stroger critic called it "groundhog day" at the county building.

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